“From All to Also” Parashat Korach 5774

Never a dull moment. In last week’s Parasha, Am Yisrael participate in a national mutiny and the nation is sentenced to forty years wandering in the desert. This week, Korach has his own personal micro-mutiny, and he and his followers are swallowed by the earth. The two Parshiot share more than just a mutiny. If we zoom out, it becomes clear that Parashat Korach has the same structure as Parashat Shelach. Both Parshiot can be divided into two halves. The first half contains an action-packed adventure and the second half of the story contains a selection of mitzvot. In last week’s shiur, we showed how the mitzvot given in the second half of Parashat Shelach served as a tikkun – reparation – for the sin of the spies. This week we’ll see how the mitzvot given in the second half of the Parashat Korach serve as a tikkun for the sin of Korach.

Let’s quickly review the geopolitics of Korach’s revolt. Korach, a Levite and a cousin of Moshe and Aharon, joins forces with Datan and Aviram, two notorious rabble-rousers. They assemble two hundred and fifty supporters and then they make a double accusation: They accuse Moshe of stealing the political leadership and they accuse Aharon of stealing the spiritual leadership. Korach tells Moshe [Bemidbar 16:3] “The entire congregation are all holy and Hashem is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above Hashem’s assembly?” Am Yisrael are composed of three castes: Kohanim, Levites, and ordinary Israelites. The Levites are a subset of the twelve tribes of Israel, the Kohanim are a subset of the Levites, and the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) is a subset of the Kohanim. Korach’s point was that there was no need for a spiritual caste system. We are all created equal. Everyone is holy. Everyone can connect with Hashem.

The mitzvot given in the second half of the Parasha show just how wrong Korach was. The first mitzvah delegates responsibility in the service of Hashem to the Kohanim and Levites. They are given diverse jobs: the Kohanim are to officiate while the Levites must ensure that no unauthorized personnel enter areas that are above his or her spiritual level. The second mitzvah records all of the gifts that are given to the Kohanim and to the Levites[1]. The third mitzvah is the mitzvah of “Terumat Ma’aser”, a tithe given by the Levites to the Kohanim[2]. All three of these mitzvot are based upon a rigid caste system. Every person has his boundaries and his entitlements. A person who goes beyond these boundaries will, like Korach, be severely punished. As undemocratic as it sounds, everyone is not created spiritually equal. Yes, we are all holy, and yes, we can all connect with Hashem. But each of us must connect by taking only the roads that are open to us.

We could end this shiur right here, but we’d be missing something. Just as the mitzvot given after the sin of the spies convey a hidden message[3], so, too, do the mitzvot given after Korach’s rebellion is crushed. Rav Elchanan Samet typically interprets an episode in the Torah by looking for a “Key Word”, a particular word in the episode that seems gratuitously overused. The key to discovering the hidden message in Parashat Korach is in noticing that the Key Word is switched halfway through the Parasha. It is clear that the Key Word in the first half of the Parasha is the word “kol” – “all”. As we saw above, when Korach first approaches Moshe he tells him “The entire (kol ha’eda) congregation are all holy (kulam kedoshim)”, instead of “The nation is holy”. Every time Moshe refers to Korach’s co-conspirators he calls them “kol adat’cha” – “all of your group”, and not just “your group”. All in all, the word “kol” is used in this way eleven times. Proof that the use of the word “kol” is gratuitous can be found in the translation of Rav Yonatan ben Uziel. The first time Moshe uses the phrase “kol adat’cha”, Rav Yonatan ben Uziel translates it simply as “your group”, without the additional “all”. However, every time subsequently it is translated as it is written, i.e. “all of your group”. This is a clear indication that the word “all” is not adding anything to the meaning of the verse.

Suddenly, after Korach is killed, the word “kol” disappears, and is replaced by the word “gam” – “also”. In the commandment that the Levites shall serve the Kohanim, Moshe is told [Bemidbar 18:2] “And also your brothers from the Tribe of Levi you shall draw near”. The word “also” adds absolutely nothing to the verse. One verse later, Kohanim and Levites are warned to stay within their bounds [Bemidbar 18:3] “so that you shall not die, neither you nor them (gam hem gam atem: literally ‘also you, also them’)” Why not just say “So that you shall not die. Full Stop.”? And when the Levites are commanded to give Terumat Ma’aser, they are told [Bemidbar 18:28] “You shall also (gam atem[4]) give a tithe”. The language is too similar to be coincidental.

What is the difference between “all” and “also”? In the Rosh Hashanah davening we repeatedly ask Hashem “Meloch al kol ha’olam kulo” – “Rule over the entire world in its entirety”. This sounds somewhat redundant. I once read an explanation by Rav J.B. Soloveichik that is summarized beautifully by Rav Zeev Leff. Rav Leff suggests that “perhaps ‘the entire world’ means all the people in the entire world as individuals, and ‘in its entirety’ means the world as one united harmonious component”. It is clear that the source of Korach’s power came from “all”, but from which “all”? As Korach was initially backed by little more than two hundred and fifty men, he must have been powered by Rav Leff’s second “all”, in which Am Yisrael is not an amalgam of people, but, rather, one organic being. This interpretation spurred Korach’s mutiny. It wasn’t that Korach wanted Aharon to be replaced by someone more to his liking. Since “many” had become “one”, there were no “leaders” and there were no “followers”. There was no need for Kohanim or Levites, and there was no reason to spiritually limit anyone.

Korach was dead wrong, and the proof is in “also”. In the verse that commands the Levites to “also give a tithe”, Rashi comments that “just like Israelites tithe from their produce [to the Levites], so should the Levites tithe [to the Kohanim]”. The Levite’s duties flow from the duties of the man on the street. The Talmud in Tractate Bava Metzia [22a] takes this concept one step further, extracting from the word “also” that a person can appoint an emissary (shaliach), not only to tithe for him, but to perform nearly every mitzvah for him. Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, writing in “Oznayim LaTorah”, explains why the concept of an emissary is learnt specifically from this verse: “Just as the Levites serve in the Mishkan as emissaries of all of Am Yisrael, so, too, can a person appoint his own emissary”. Korach was correct in his assertion that Am Yisrael, as one organic being, possess inherent holiness. He was incorrect in believing that this holiness could be expressed equally by all individuals. Holiness is often compared to light. I suggest that the metaphysics of the transmission of holiness mimics the physics of the transmission of light. Light travels in waves. A source of light is usually “incoherent”. It emits waves of different wavelengths, and even waves of the same wavelength are emitted haphazardly. This limits the power of the light. But when the light is emitted coherently, in one wavelength, and synchronized so that each wave magnifies the other waves instead of cancelling them out, the result is a laser that can shoot down a rocket. Just like a laser beam channels the energy of the light source, so, too, does the spiritual organization of Am Yisrael channel our holiness. When we are incoherent we fight with each other and we are weak. But when each person takes the routes assigned to him, our holiness is a laser beam that cuts through the heavens.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5774


[1]The Kohanim and the Levites, as civil servants, were supported by your tax dollars.

[2]The Levites received one tenth of a person’s crops (Ma’aser) and they must give one tenth of what they receive (i.e. one hundredth of a person’s crops) to the Kohanim.

[3]The hidden message, discussed in our shiur last week, was that even after Am Yisrael entered the Land of Israel, it would be a long time until they successfully captured and settled it.

[4]The same “gam atem” as above. The reuse of this term should start red warning lights blinking.